Let's talk Latin America

The pros and cons of Presidentialism in Latin America

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Bristolatino’s Politics editor Kwame Lowe discusses the next steps Latin America should take to maintain, or in some cases achieve democratic stability.

Virtually all Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, as well as Brazil, the only Portuguese-speaking country on the continent, have a presidential (or semi-presidential) system of government as opposed to a parliamentary one. The Latin American countries with a parliamentary system are instead French-speaking (notably French Guiana and Haiti). This pattern is significant because the way governmental powers are configured has been shown to affect a country’s democratic stability. It must be acknowledged that Presidentialism can have a significant impact on democratic stability- even if the degree of this impact is often overstated- once we consider the fact that the USA is the only country in the world with both a presidential system and a long-running history of democracy. To be clear, a presidential system has two defining features: elections for the President (the Head of State) happen separately to those for the legislature, and the President has a fixed term of office—meaning they are unable to be removed from office as a result of a vote of no-confidence in the legislature.

The main argument in favour of Presidentialism is that the elected Head of State is given greater legitimacy and they are more accountable to the public, strengthening democracy in the process. The designation of powers between the President (the executive), the legislature and (often) a judiciary means there is a system of checks and balances, ensuring consensus is sought before any major policy changes are enacted. Nonetheless, this argument could appear idealistic, as it is more common for the system to cause deadlock and governmental inaction. This may not be so problematic in an economically developed country like the USA, but in Latin American countries (where the public is anxious for social change), this lack of progress is more likely to lead to people taking political action outside of democratic channels, resulting in coups such as the one that took place in Ecuador in 2005. Furthermore, presidential systems have a tendency to result in authoritarianism. This is because the President (unlike the Head of State under a parliamentary system) is often a military commander-in-chief. Therefore, the only possible solution to deadlock between an executive and legislature, who each have legitimate mandates from the public, is the use of coercion.

Having briefly discussed both arguments for and against Presidentialism, it is important to consider the influence other factors have had in causing democratic instability on the continent. Most notable of these factors are the frequent intervening of the USA in Latin American politics, the diversity and divisions within many Latin American populations, and the relative underdevelopment of the continent’s economies. If the levels of development forecasted to take place are realised, many of these hindrances will soon disappear and the political environment will consequently become favourable to democracy regardless of the form it takes. However, in the meantime, a transition to parliamentary systems of government would seem advisable, if not imperative.